Tom Jones on Healing After Losing His Wife Linda to Cancer: 'She Told Me, "Don't Die with Me"'
At 80, Sir Tom Jones is doing anything but slowing down.
While many stars have taken a step back from work over the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the music legend has been as busy as ever coaching on The Voice U.K. (which wrapped its 10th season in March) and releasing his new album Surrounded by Time (out Friday).
The studio album, his 41st, marks Jones' triumphant return to music after a five-year hiatus from recording — the longest of his career — while he navigated the grief of losing his wife of 59 years, Linda, to lung cancer in 2016.
"When we found out she was sick, I canceled the tour I was on and went to visit her in the hospital in Los Angeles. I told her I wasn't sure if I would be able to sing anymore," Jones (who lived with Linda in L.A. since 1974 before moving back to the U.K. following her death) tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "But she told me, 'You've got to. There's no way out for me, I know where I'm going. But don't die with me.'"
Five years later, Jones says he's still finding ways to cope with the loss. The singer (born Thomas Jones Woodward) and Linda — who met as kids growing up in Pontypridd, South Wales — had done everything together.
"I was asked the other day, 'Would you ever get married again?'" says Jones. "I couldn't, because there's no history with anybody else."
High school sweethearts, Jones and Linda married in 1957 when they were both 16 and Linda was eight months pregnant with their son Mark. To support his young family, Jones took a job in construction while pursuing his passion for music at night.
"If you can get over in a Welsh coal-mining working-man's club, you don't have to worry about the Copacabana," he says, referring to the famed New York City nightspot. "Because you got to be able to sing in order to get up in front of these people."
In 1964 he caught the attention of late talent manager Gordon Mills, who signed him and gave him his stage name.
"I wasn't making any money when I first went to London [to work on music]," Jones says. "So until I could send some money home, Linda went and worked in a factory. She didn't like it, but she did it because she believed in me."
Though Jones found little success with his first single, "Chills and Fever," everything changed in early 1965 when "It's Not Unusual" shot to the top of the U.K. charts while he was on tour with British singer Cilla Black.
"After a show one night, I went to a pub with these other rock bands from Liverpool and the girls were screaming outside. I thought, 'Oh, they must be screaming for them,'" he says. "I walked out with a little pork pie in my hand not realizing that 'It's Not Unusual' had gone up the charts so fast. Well, these kids jumped on me! My raincoat was completely in shreds."
From there, Jones' fame only grew as he had a string of Top 10 U.K. hits in the mid-1960s, including "What's New Pussycat?," "Green, Green Grass of Home"and "Delilah." Then in 1969 he certified his status as a sex symbol when he landed his own variety TV show, This Is Tom Jones, duetting with guests including Cher, Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin.
"She'd say, 'I married Thomas Woodward, so don't try that Tom Jones bulls--- with me,'" says Jones.
In fact Linda told Jones exactly that one night while he played a game of snooker (a cue sport) with friends at their home on St. George's Hill, which is often referred to as the Beverly Hills of Britain.
"I was drinking champagne and smoking a cigar and like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we did this, and that, and the other,'" he explains. "She said, 'Just a minute. You don't think you're really Tom Jones, do you?' I said, 'Well ... yeah.' And she said, 'Well, you're not. I married Tommy Woodward, so don't bring that Tom Jones bulls--- when I'm around. You could be like that with your friends, but not with me.'"
"This guy that was there fell on the floor laughing," he continues. "He said, 'I never heard anybody speak to you like that before.' I said, 'Well, nobody else could. But she's my wife.' No matter what else I did, she was always first. She kept my feet on the ground."
Still, at the height of rock-star fame, Jones had many well-documented affairs (one, with model Katherine Berkery, produced his son Jonathan). But, he insists, Linda was always "No. 1 in my life."
"Anything else apart from that was nonexistent as far as we were concerned as husband and wife," he says. "It wasn't an open marriage, though. No, no, no. If I made a move, one squeeze from her and my ... It would hurt in a place where you wouldn't want to hurt."
After Linda's death, Jones says he had a daunting realization: "Who is going to save me from myself now?"
He found the answer in his son Mark, who is now his manager and "won't allow me to be 'Tom Jones,'" he says. A grief therapist also helped him find the strength to sing again by encouraging him to perform Bob Dylan's soul-searching love ballad "What Good Am I?"
"It's a song that makes me think about my wife and whether I could have changed anything," he says. "But I got some musician friends together in a hotel room, and I sang it. I got through it."
Two months after Linda's death, Jones — who pays homage to Linda and her dying wish for him with his cover of Bernice Johnson's "I Won't Crumble with You If You Fall" on Surrounded by Time — got in front of a crowd to perform live again for the first time at the Hampton Court Palace in London.
"The audience knew what I was going through and was with me," he says. "I felt the love come up from that stage, and I thought, 'Wow, I'm okay.'"
Asked what brings him joy now, and Jones remembers something his dad, Thomas — a coal miner with bad lungs — would say to him as a kid.
"When I would ask him, 'Dad, how are you feeling?' He'd say, 'I'm still breathing,' " recalls Jones, who found new meaning to those words through his difficult past few years.
"As long as you're alive and breathing, you can take care of anything," he says."Life is more precious to me now, and I want to try and make the most of it."
For all the details on Tom Jones' life now, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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